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Appointment Hell

Practically everyone agrees that the process of appointing and confirming executive branch officials is onerous and even demeaning. Yet nothing has been done to reform the system. This Congress should do it.

Abundant attention has been drawn to the problem over the past four years by the $3.9 million Presidential Appointee Initiative, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and run by the Brookings Institution. Dozens of newspaper articles, columns and editorials have covered and lamented the maze of paperwork and delays that appointees face. Members of Congress have expressed intentions to change the system. A bill to do so even was voted out of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 2002.

Yet the PAI is closing down on June 30, basically having failed to accomplish its mission. And, with the close-down, outside pressure will be off and it will take initiative from Congress and the White House to change the system. “We provided more than enough data to show that the process is getting in the way of attracting qualified people to serve in government,” says PAI’s director, Paul C. Light. “What we weren’t able to do is convince Congress and the executive branch to change it. We just couldn’t get this over the threshold of importance.”

You’d think that the Bush White House would be massively frustrated that it took an average of 8.7 months following nomination to get its first batch of appointees confirmed by the Senate and into office. The average for the Clinton administration and the previous Bush administration was 8.3 months and for the Reagan administration, 5.2 months.

Part of the reason for lengthening delays is that the number of “political” appointees in the executive branch — both those requiring confirmation and those who don’t — has exploded from 451 in 1960 to 3,361 in 2000. Appointees have to fill out massive paperwork, recording all their residences, jobs and income, to satisfy ethical and security requirements. Those requiring Senate confirmation have to fill out a whole new set of forms. Appointees have been known to spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire accountants to assemble the required data. Nominations often are held up by Senators to secure leverage on issues having nothing to do with the nominee involved.

Legislation to streamline the system has been introduced again this year — in the Senate by Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and in the House by Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.). The bills would simplify financial reporting requirements for executive appointees (not judicial nominees) and require agencies to examine — with an eye to reducing — the number of presidentially appointed positions.

There’s no earthly reason this legislation shouldn’t pass. And then, the Senate should consider how it can take the torture out of its part of the confirmation process.

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